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Following Mueller Report's Release, Everyone Makes Their Next Moves

The giant domino titled "Report On The Investigation Into Russian Interference In The 2016 Presidential Election" (a.k.a. the Mueller report) has fallen, and so it is now time for many other dominoes to fall, as well. And the various actors definitely spent the weekend making their next moves in this little chess game (Note: That's two strategy-game metaphors for the price of one).

Several members of Team Trump, for their part, spent the weekend twisting themselves into pretzels. The problem is obvious: They want to embrace the parts of the report that say "Can't charge Donald Trump with collusion/obstruction," but denounce the rest as a farce and a witch hunt. It's not so easy to have it both ways, but Trump's people are trying their hardest. That includes, in particular, Trump TV lawyer Rudy Giuliani, who emerged from whatever cave he's been hiding in to make many TV appearances this weekend. His most notable contribution to the discussion was to declare that, "There's nothing wrong with taking information from Russians." That is a dubious proposition from an ethical and political standpoint (imagine if Barack Obama had taken information from the Russians in 2008), and it's also factually wrong. Valuable information is a contribution in kind, which means it has to be declared by a campaign, just as if it were cash. So, failure to declare such a contribution is illegal. And presidential candidates cannot accept contributions of any sort, whether in cash or in kind, from foreigners. So, it's doubly illegal. If the Trump campaign had purchased the information and reported it, then it would probably be legal, but it didn't.

The President does not do nuance, of course. And so, unlike Giuliani (and Kellyanne Conway, and several others), he was less concerned about threading the needle and more concerned about lashing out against anyone and everyone in his sights. He sent a dozen tweets or retweets blasting the investigation; roughly half of those were originally the work of Fox News personalities. He also fired the law firm of former White House counsel Don McGahn, whose offense was answering Robert Mueller's questions truthfully. He blasted Sen. Mitt Romney (R-UT), sending out a tweet that contrasted footage of Willard on election night 2012 and Trump on election night 2016:

Why Romney? Well, the Senator was one of the few GOP members of the Senate to speak out about the Mueller report, declaring that he is "sickened at the extent and pervasiveness of dishonesty and misdirection by individuals in the highest office of the land, including the President." During his 2018 campaign, we (and others) wondered what his game was, since he clearly doesn't plan to stay in the Senate long enough to gain real power (which takes 15-20 years). Now, we know: He is going to be the voice of the anti-Trump Republicans (and, very likely, is positioning himself as the alternative to Trump if one is needed in 2020).

Romney wasn't the only anti-Trump Republican to speak up this weekend. In fact, a group of them, who call themselves the "Rule of Law Republicans" produced a commercial featuring footage from the Bill Clinton impeachment in which a bunch of former GOP congressmen explain why it is imperative that Bubba be impeached. All of these things would also seem to apply to Trump, thus implying that the time has come for Republicans to be consistent and to support impeachment (again). The ad is airing on Fox News right now:

Conservative commentator S.E. Cupp, of CNN, joined in on the chorus, opining that the President is "unfit to lead" and that "He's got to go," though she prefers that he be fired via ballot and not via impeachment.

Cupp is likely to get her non-impeachment wish, because House Democrats are pooh-poohing that option, and instead pursuing a large number of non-impeachment-related leads. They have officially subpoenaed the unredacted version of the Mueller report, arguing—quite reasonably—that they are entitled, by virtue of their jobs and their security clearances, to see it. That fight will head to court shortly.

Pelosi & Co. are also considering which key figure to talk to first. The obvious contenders are Robert Mueller (he knows a lot, but may be circumspect), Don McGahn (he also knows a lot, and is apparently willing to talk), AG William Barr (who will undoubtedly squirm as the members ask him to account for himself), and Deputy AG Rod Rosenstein (who has the clearest view of the "big picture," and who may be itching for the opportunity to tell his story without fear of recrimination). It would appear that we already know the winner of this little horse race, as House Oversight Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler (D-NY) announced on Sunday night that his first subpoena is going to...McGahn.

The blue team is also clever enough to know that some crimes are easier to prove than others. For conspiracy and obstruction of justice, the bar is pretty high, as we've all learned in the last week. For financial crimes, like money laundering, are generally a bit easier. And so, the Democrats are now digging furiously into Trump's finances, particularly the possibility that he took money from foreign powers, or that he engaged in money laundering. Given that there are a dozen Mueller-initiated investigations that are ongoing but with subjects that are currently unknown, it's possible that the FBI, the SDNY, or some other entity is doing the same work (more in the Q&A below).

The upshot, then, is that Trump & Co. will be able to breathe their (small) sigh of relief and unfurl their spin, but the anti-Trump Republicans and the Democrats are in this for the long haul. That means that the President will never truly be free of the Mueller investigation. (Z)

Trump Administration Wants to Kill Iranian Oil Exports

It's been just less than a year (May 8) since Donald Trump canceled the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (a.k.a. the Iran nuclear deal). That decision, in theory, meant that previously existing sanctions on the nation's oil exports were re-imposed, and that the United States would retaliate against any nations that did not follow along. As a practical matter, it takes time for a country to disentangle itself from a trade partner, even if it wants to do so. Consequently, eight nations received short-term waivers to keep importing Iranian oil.

Those waivers are about to expire and, this morning, the State Department is going to announce that they will not be renewed. Three of the eight nations (Greece, Italy and Taiwan) have already weaned themselves off of Iranian oil, so this poses no problem for them. Five other nations, namely China, India, Turkey, Japan and South Korea, are going to have a decision to make. Those five, particularly China and India (who import far and away the most oil from Iran), would face economic sanctions (or, in China's case, more economic sanctions) if they decide to maintain their trade relationship with the Iranians.

The person who pushed for this was Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, and the goal is to completely cut the Iranian oil industry off at the knees, thus depriving them of the funds needed to support military involvement in other countries and/or terrorist activities. This might be a viable strategy, but for three concerns. First, Iran (like North Korea) always tends to find the money for their military/nuclear programs, and tends to cut from other areas when funds get tight. Second, several of the countries on the list of five (like, say, China and Turkey) have a history of claiming to be doing one thing, but actually doing another. Will the U.S. be able to confirm they have stopped importing Iranian oil, if they say they have?

Finally, and most importantly, neither Pompeo nor anyone else in the administration has been able to articulate what the long-term strategy is here. Sanctions have not worked all that well with Iran, historically, and there is no compelling reason to think the outcome will be different this time. What this seems to be setting up is a future in which the U.S. relaxes sanctions in exchange for concessions from the Iranians, like an agreement to halt nuclear weapons research. Of course, that's exactly what the Iran nuclear deal was. This whole situation seems curiously similar to the one with Obamacare; the administration hates the existing arrangement created by Barack Obama, and so kills it, but has no particular ideas about a replacement. (Z)

Biden Will Make it Official This Week

For weeks, if not months, Joe Biden's 2020 presidential run has been inevitable. He's been doing all the things a would-be candidate needs to do, like hire staff, meet with big-wig donors, appear on lots of TV programs, and so forth. Reportedly, according to numerous Biden insiders, this will be the week that he formally declares his candidacy.

The thinking here, timing-wise, is pretty obvious. Biden is encouraged, of course, by the fact that most polls have him as the frontrunner. However, he's also got to be nervous about the piles of cash being collected by folks like Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) and Kamala Harris (D-CA), Mayor Pete Buttigieg (D-South Bend), and Beto O'Rourke. By declaring near the start of Q2, Biden has maximum opportunity to raise money prior to the next reporting deadline, and to avoid embarrassing headlines like "Sanders doubles Biden's take." Indeed, depending on how carefully the former VP has lined up his ducks, he might be setting up a very helpful headline like "Biden doubles Sanders' take." The former would be a big blow to his candidacy, while the latter would cement him as the leader of the pack.

Once he joins the race, Biden will have some very important advantages, including his near-universal name recognition, his connection to Barack Obama, and his apparently magical relationship with blue-collar Rust Belt voters. On the other hand, he will also have some serious liabilities, including his age, the fact that he's had numerous failed runs for the White House before, some elements of his record (like Anita Hill), and his habit of putting his hands in places that they are not always wecome. Our profile of him is here. (Z)

For Many Young Christians, Jesus is Alright, but not Mike Pence

Speaking of vice presidents who might just be out of step with the times, we give you Mike Pence. There's no question that he's a devout evangelical Christian. In fact, he might be the most prominent evangelical Christian in the nation, now that Billy Graham is dead. Consequently, Pence gets a lot of invitations to speak at religious schools, particularly during graduation ceremonies. And he doesn't always receive a warm reception; students at a number of these schools have either walked out on Pence, or have tried to persuade university leaders to disinvite him.

Given that he is seen as future presidential timber or, at very least, a shining example of fundamentalist Christian belief, many conservative leaders are "alarmed" at the response to Pence. And they should be, because this is the latest sign of the declining political power of evangelicals, who will not have the numbers to dominate the Republican Party for much longer.

This demographic change actually has two elements to it. The first is that religiosity, in general, is in decline in the United States. Gallup's latest poll on the matter, released last week, reveals that the percentage of Americans who report belonging to a church, synagogue or mosque (50%) is at an all-time low. That continues a recent trend that has seen church membership drop by 20% in less than 20 years, and that will likely mean that 2020 will be the first year on record that more Americans are non-churchgoing than are churchgoing:

Church membership since the 1930s

The second element is that many of those young people who have decided to stick with their church are nonetheless unhappy with the politics of the evangelical movement. They don't like the anti-gay stuff, the anti-immigrant stuff, and they struggle to understand the embrace of Donald Trump. These are the folks who are walking out on Mike Pence.

There's no clear solution here. In the 1960s, the Catholic Church decided that maybe some of the things that were turning young people off (like, say, Latin services) were not so essential, and so made some changes (like, say, services in the local language). Evangelicals could conclude that maybe being anti-gay, etc. is not essential (after all, Jesus' message was about love, not hate), but that has been the core of their political identity for half a century now. Further, backing off on some of the political stuff won't change the overall drift away from religion. The point is that anyone who thinks that Mike Pence is the face of the Republican Party of the 20s needs to realize that is only true if we're talking about the 1920s. Or, maybe even better, the 1820s. (Z)

Shaheen Wants to Derail New Hampshire Voter Residency Law

Last year, the GOP had the trifecta in New Hampshire. And before they lost two-thirds of it (the two houses of the legislature), they passed House Bill 1264. The bill declared that it's not enough for college students to merely reside in the state in order to vote; they have to establish residence. And doing so requires some investment of time and money, so as to acquire a New Hampshire state driver's license.

The intent here is plain: College students tend to vote Democratic, and in a state that is both small and purple, keeping a few thousand of them from casting ballots could be decisive. Given that the GOP still controls the governor's mansion (Chris Sununu), the now-Democratic-controlled legislature isn't in a position to repeal the bill. So, Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH) is sending a letter today to all of the declared Democratic presidential candidates, asking them to pledge opposition to the law. Some of them, like Beto O'Rourke, have jumped the gun and spoken out against it, even before getting their copy of the letter.

In H.R. 1, the Democrats already signaled their intent to make protection of voting rights a major issue in 2020. Given New Hampshire's place near the front of the primary line, the Democratic candidates are going to do everything they can to appeal to voters there, which will presumably include railing against HB 1264. So, everything points to this issue becoming 2020's version of the $15/hour minimum wage. (Z)

United States Now Among the Most Dangerous Countries for Journalists

For the first time, the United States has made a list that (presumably) no country wants to make: the five most dangerous countries in the world for journalists to ply their trade. Joining the U.S. on the list are Mexico, India, Syria, Afghanistan, and Yemen (there are six entries because the U.S. and India tied for fifth place).

What is the cause of this newfound status, which is based on the number of journalists who are killed, detained, kidnapped, or who disappear? Quite often, it is the outbreak of a war, but there is no war going on in the United States right now. Another possible cause would be if someone in a position of power was constantly declaring the press and/or journalists to be an enemy, a threat, dishonest, evil, etc., thus encouraging violent action against them. Our staff researchers are looking into whether there is any such person who said (or tweeted) such things in, say, the last year or two. (Z)

Monday Q&A

It would seem that an all-Mueller-report edition is justified, and so here goes.

After reading Volume I of the Mueller report, I kept coming back to the question of why the Russians were so intent on helping Donald Trump and hurting Hillary Clinton? Did they really believe there was a benefit to Russia with Trump in the White House versus Clinton? J.W., Kansas City, KS

Yes, they did. The obvious area of concern here is Crimea, which the Russians "annexed" by force in 2014. The other area of concern is the Middle East, particularly Syria, where the Russians prefer to pursue their activities with as little American interference as possible.

There is no question that Hillary Clinton, who is as expert about foreign affairs as anyone walking the planet, would have taken a firm stance on these subjects, and would not have been subject to manipulation. So, just about anyone besides Clinton would have been preferable to Putin. Once Trump emerged as a viable possibility, and then as the frontrunner, Putin concluded (correctly, as it turns out) that the Donald would be particularly susceptible to manipulation and/or intimidation. The Russian also guessed that Trump would judge the incursions in Crimea and in Syria to be no big deal, and so would not make dealing with them a priority. Putin was right about that, too.

Note that all of this is true even if Putin has no kompromat on Trump, and no knowledge of future Trump aspirations in Russia (e.g., Trump Tower Moscow). If either of these things is actually the case, then Putin would have specific leverage over Trump, making the choice of Donald over Hillary all the easier.

My question is about the lightning-fast response of House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-MD), who said it's "not worthwhile" to pursue impeachment. Why? If impeachment proceedings begin, wouldn't it still lay out the case against the President and diminish the chances he gets re-elected or even re-nominated, even if they don't conclude before the election? A.M., Miami Beach, FL

What the Democrats are thinking about is the Bill Clinton impeachment of 1998, which not only failed to secure a conviction, but also ginned up the Democratic base, and so backfired against the Republicans. And that was with a president who did not have Twitter or a penchant for publicly blasting his enemies in coarse language. There is every reason to think that, in the hands of Donald Trump, an impeachment would give him exactly what he needs to drive his base into a frenzy. It might also serve to persuade Independents that the blue team is "just as bad" as the red team, and that both major parties are basically the same. So, the political risks here are significant.

At the same time, the benefits of impeachment would not appear to be all that great. There is little chance of a conviction, given the GOP-controlled Senate, and even if Trump somehow was removed, it would be with less than a year left in his presidency. You suggest that an impeachment proceeding would allow the Democrats to lay out the evidence against him, but the fact is that everyone who hates Trump already knows what they need to know. An impeachment proceeding would not have much impact in terms of opening voters' eyes, or giving them information they didn't already have.

The Democratic strategy, as we have pointed out, is effectively to use the 2020 elections to impeach Trump, but with the voters, rather than the Senate, serving as jury. The behavior in the Mueller report is not going to drop off the radar, and while the Democrats don't want to lay the anti-Trump stuff on too thick, there will be a theme of "If you want a corrupt President, vote for Trump, if you want one with integrity, vote for us."

The blue team also expects that, as in 2018, Trump will drag the overall ticket down. They are looking forward to that. In fact, it might be more correct to say they are drooling. If Mitt Romney or some more normal Republican is atop the ticket, a second blue wave probably becomes less likely.

If impeachment becomes a reality, can Trump be forced to testify? Does the Fifth Amendment apply to Impeachment since it is not a criminal proceeding? A.D.B., Brecksville, OH

He can be forced to testify, though there are some legal and logistical issues that make that a little tricky. This was resolved, in the case of Bill Clinton, by having him testify before a grand jury instead.

As to the Fifth Amendment, that's a trickier question. It's never come up in a presidential impeachment, but the issue does come up in other kinds of non-criminal cases. Originally, after reading several legal commentaries on the matter, we wrote that the Fifth Amendment could not be invoked. However, we then heard from several lawyer readers, who believe that it could be invoked, but that it would be acceptable for Congress to make adverse inferences based on its invocation. In other words, refusing to answer a question about, say, money laundering could be taken as prima facie evidence of money laundering.

In summary, then: There is not a universal consensus on this issue, but either way, the Fifth Amendment is not likely to protect Trump very much, should it come to that.

With the release of the report and Trump admitting he's "f*cked" and with the House all but certain to investigate further, do you think down the road a Mitch McConnell or Lindsey Graham or someone will tell him it's time to move on and resign/not run in 2020, or will the GOP hunker down and hope for the best next November? D.R., Massapequa Park, NY

In other words, is there a Barry Goldwater in the GOP willing to "speak truth" to Trump? We are very skeptical. First, there is every chance that Trump would turn against a person who told him that, and would try to destroy them. Second, they know it is improbable that Trump would step down voluntarily. He needs to run and win, both to satisfy his ego, but also to give him four years' more protection against post-presidential prosecution.

Let's say things get worse for Donald Trump over the coming months, and Congressional Republicans see 2020 being a bloodbath for them. In this situation, things would also be bad for Republicans at the state level, as well. Since it's a census year, this would result in state legislative and Congressional districts being redrawn in favor of Democrats. By getting rid of Trump now, and going with a generic Republican at the top of the GOP ticket, not only might they have a shot at keeping the White House, but maybe things won't be so bad down-ballot. Meanwhile, with keeping Trump at the top of the ticket, it could be great for Democrats down-ballot. They win a ton of elections at the state level, allowing them to draw districts favorable to them for the next decade.

I'm curious to know if this is enough of a reason for Republicans to support impeachment and removal, and Democrats to oppose.
R.M., Pensacola, FL

This is the companion to the previous question, which was about Trump voluntarily deciding (or being convinced) that it's better that he not run in 2020. In this scenario, the GOP members of the Senate decide that it's better that he not run, and force the issue. We are very skeptical that an open GOP rebellion against Trump could come to pass (unless something new and very damaging comes to light).

The fundamental problem is this: Much of Trump's base is more loyal to him than to any political party. And if the GOP tries to take him down, he will respond the way he always does: punching back. He has no particular loyalty to the Republican Party, and will do everything in his power to take them down in flames with him. They're already the minority party, and if he can convince a fraction of his base to stay home on Election Day, or to write his name in, or to vote for a protest candidate, then the Republicans will take an epic beating in 2020.

Only Mitch McConnell (R-KY), as the other major leader of the Republican Party, knows what is truly in his heart. However, it would not surprise us if his dream scenario is for the Democrats to come up with proof of criminal malfeasance against Trump (say, money laundering), and to force him to trade the presidency for freedom from prosecution. Whether that deal would even be offered in those circumstances is an excellent question, but a turtle can dream, can't he? That sequence would leave the GOP with a more conventional candidate, and would also leave the Democrats as the bad guys.

That brings us to the final element to your question: By taking action against Trump that forces him from office, would the blue team be playing into the red team's hands, by ridding them of their Trump-sized headache? Maybe. However, the Democratic base is absolutely furious with Trump, and badly wants action. If House Democrats do somehow manage to boot him from the Oval Office, it would likely serve to gin up Democratic voters so much that a second blue wave would be probable.

The short version is this: There aren't a lot of ways forward that end well for the GOP, particularly the more traditional members of the party.

Anybody else hearing the distinct sound of crickets from Republicans after release of the Mueller report? M.N., Portland, OR

You're right, their silence is notable. As we note above, Team Trump, the anti-Trump Republicans, and the Democrats were all over the news this weekend. However, the remainder of the GOP (which might be called the "enabler" faction) was gone fishin'. It's like they know they are getting closer and closer to a day when whatever approach they take to the President will be a loser, as opposing him will aggravate the base, and supporting him (even passively) will aggravate moderate Republicans and Independents.

One of the obvious Mueller report questions (which you posed yourselves a while back): what did all those money-laundering experts work on? Does the report contain any hint? J.K., Bergen, Norway

Volume I of the report has the word 'laundering' just five times, while Volume II has it once. There are actually more references to the claim that Hillary Clinton laundered money than to the claim that Donald Trump did so.

Now, let us move on to some indisputable facts:

  • Mueller had several money laundering experts on his team, who worked for him for over a year
  • There are, as noted above, a dozen ongoing Mueller-initiated investigations about which nothing is publicly known
  • Mueller was specifically tasked with looking into Russian interference into the 2016 election. While he was technically allowed to look into anything incidental that came up in the course of that investigation, it meant going beyond his mandate, and it meant using up valuable time that he didn't necessarily have to spare.

Add it all up, and it's dollars to doughnuts that one or more of those Mueller-initiated investigations is centered on money laundering. Or, to answer your question more directly: The biggest hint contained within the report is the lack of any hints whatsoever. If there was nothing to look into, Mueller would have noted it and moved on. That he said virtually nothing at all (or, at least, nothing that is unredacted), is very instructive.

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---The Votemaster and Zenger
Apr19 "Document of the Decade" Drops
Apr19 Takeaways from the Mueller Report
Apr19 Mueller Report Headlines
Apr18 Let the Spin Begin
Apr18 Trump Administration Announces New Sanctions Against Three Countries
Apr18 Trump Officially Vetoes Yemen Resolution
Apr18 Rick Perry to Exit
Apr18 Buttigieg for Governor?
Apr18 Democrats Are Struggling in Virginia
Apr18 McAuliffe Won't Run in 2020
Apr17 Barr Announces Major Change to Immigration Policy
Apr17 Both Trump Fed Picks Are in Trouble
Apr17 Sanders' Town Hall Was Apparently Quite Successful
Apr17 Democrats' Q1 Fundraising Totals Are In
Apr17 Trump's Fundraising Is In, Too
Apr17 Green New Deal Has Solid Bipartisan Support
Apr17 Guess Who Is Atop the Senate Polls in Alabama?
Apr16 Mueller Report Coming on Thursday
Apr16 Let the Subpoena Wars Begins
Apr16 Sanders Releases His Tax Returns
Apr16 Tax Cuts Apparently Not What the Doctor Ordered
Apr16 Buttigieg Officially Declares
Apr16 So Does Weld
Apr16 It's Trump vs. Omar
Apr15 Trump Told CBP Head He Would Get a Pardon If He Broke the Law
Apr15 Sanders Woos Trump Voters--by Attacking Trump
Apr15 Harris Releases 15 Years of Tax Returns
Apr15 Neal Gives Mnuchin More Time to Produce Trump's Tax Returns
Apr15 Democrats Are Already Thinking about Super Tuesday
Apr15 See Dick Run. But Why?
Apr15 Gillibrand Raised $3 Million in Q1
Apr15 Joe Manchin Invades Susan Collins' Personal Space While Endorsing Her
Apr15 New Mexico Secretary of State May Run for the Senate
Apr15 Rep. Dave Loebsack Will Not Run for Reelection
Apr15 Monday Q&A
Apr12 Miller-initiated Policy Was a Bridge Too Far for Nielsen
Apr12 Assange Arrested; Trump "Forgets" What Wikileaks Is
Apr12 Cain Is Dead in the Water
Apr12 McConnell Pushes Back against Cuccinelli
Apr12 Even if Trump Loses, He Wins?
Apr12 Former Obama Counsel Indicted
Apr12 Democratic Presidential Candidate of the Week: Mike Gravel
Apr11 Barr: Government Spied on Trump Campaign
Apr11 Democrats Are Preparing Their Response to the Redacted Mueller Report
Apr11 Warren Raises $6 Million in Q1
Apr11 How Democrats Could Get Ahold of Trump's Taxes
Apr11 Sanders Unveils Medicare-for-All Bill
Apr11 It's Now Miller vs. Kushner
Apr11 House Passes a Net Neutrality Bill
Apr11 Benjamin Netanyahu Won a Fifth Term as Israel's Prime Minister